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Aurora Solar Plant: our first sustainable dual-use solar project

Aurora Solar Plant: our first sustainable dual-use solar project

Continuing our series of articles on Enel Green Power’s Sustainable Plants, we head to North America, where our plants employ an innovative model combining energy production and the protection of the environment, to provide vital ecosystem services at the same time.

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Simply put, dual use solar means using the land for the production of solar energy while also taking measures to preserve natural capital and provide ecosystem services. And that is precisely what happens at the Aurora Solar Plant. Not only do these sites produce clean energy, they are also important for pollinators, wildlife, and water-quality improvements.

 

The natural approach

The Albany Solar Site in Minnesota, part of the Aurora project, is a good example. It has adopted grazing practices with the support of Minnesota Native Landscapes (MNL) Inc.[1] MNL understands that each solar plant comes with its own landscape conditions and ecological goals in terms of regenerative land management. The Conservation Grazing Plan offers an integrated and holistic approach that is in line with these goals. It involves the deployment of the appropriate species and class of livestock to execute the grazing plan. Sheep carry and spread the seeds from plants around the landscape and tread on them with their hooves, thereby enhancing vegetation practices by more than 40%.

 

“Projects like this show that we can provide renewable energy even more affordably, with more benefits so that the consumers, the buyers, get really excited about the clean energy and the conservation and the agriculture happening all in one place. We can have clean energy and we can have these beautiful flowering landscapes. That kind of innovation, that’s connected to nature, that’s connected to agriculture and that’s connected to community is tremendously exciting.”
Rob Davis, Director of Center for Pollinators and Energy

 

This plan is different from mowing practices in that it has numerous benefits, which are not only cost-related. We also consider the potential damage avoided from machines hitting equipment, or the reduction or complete elimination of herbicide use and fire fuels. Sheep breeders also benefit from having access to a secure and continuous grazing area for their animals. The plan provides a solution to the problem of scarcity of appropriate grazing land.

 

A taste of honey

Research indicates that climate change has contributed to declining populations of bumblebees[2] – crucial pollinators that support our ecosystem. At Aurora, our pollinator friendly, dual use approach is helping address both problems: generating energy with zero climate-harming emissions while providing a supportive habitat for bees. Beekeeping cooperatives just outside the fence line, but still on Enel’s premises, are leveraging the native vegetation and ecosystem at Aurora sites for supporting bee populations with the goal of promoting crop productivity to the adjacent farms surrounding the sites. Plus, the bees generate a sweet product that consumers can enjoy: honey from Aurora is sold to the food and beverage sector and used in products like snacks or even beer.

 

“We need our bees and so if we can create these pollinator oases that will last 30+ years we then can create zones around these for agrivoltaics on pollinator dependent crops.”
Dustin Vanasse, Owner of Bare Honey
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The sky at night

Ensuring that the Aurora sites are developed with dual use and ecosystem services in mind requires active engagement with our host communities. In fact, one innovative element of the sites originated from a request from a neighboring organic farmer concerned about light pollution. In collaboration with the International Dark-Sky[3] Association, Aurora Solar Plant aims to decrease light pollution through the adoption of retrofit LED lighting, which is Dark Sky Friendly lighting, meaning that it minimizes glare and reduces light trespass and skyglow.

 

“It’s a simple question, I asked Enel if we could put dark sky compliant lights in which direct the light downward rather than just randomly into the air. Right after I wrote the letter to the local Enel office, people contacted me. It wasn’t as if I was left out to dry. I felt like we were heard and they worked with us.”
Dan Shields, local organic farmer at Aurora Solar Plant

 

This choice was not only made to address the request of our neighbor who now enjoys the view of a night sky brimming with stars but to also address the negative effects light pollution has on flora, fauna and human health. Researchers suggest that artificial light at night has negative impacts on human health, increasing risks for sleep disorders, diabetes, breast cancer and other conditions. The choice is also highly beneficial for ecosystems and wildlife, as artificial light is bad news for nocturnal animals; it attracts many insects. Some predators exploit this to their advantage, and the resulting decline of insect populations negatively affects the vegetation that relies on them for food or pollination. In the case of the Aurora Solar Plant, that problem, along with many others, has been solved.

 

“The Aurora system perfectly embodies what a sustainable plant means: doing good for the people, the company, the environment by applying circular, participative, innovative and concrete actions. Moreover, it is a beauty to see how much life can grow below a photovoltaic panel!”
Antonella Santilli, Head of CSV and Sustainability projects, Sustainability, GPG

 

Solar plants are a critical component of the decarbonized electricity sector we must build in order to fight climate change. The sector is experiencing extraordinary growth. But a responsible energy future requires us not only to build more solar, but to build it the right way. Enel Green Power is implementing industry-leading sustainability practices at Aurora and across our solar portfolio to ensure sunny days are ahead for the energy sector.

 

 

[1] https://mnnativelandscapes.com/conservation-grazing-program/

[2] https://science.sciencemag.org/content/367/6478/685

[3] https://www.darksky.org/

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